By Helena Nimmo, Chief Information Officer, Endava
As companies and employees have adjusted to remote working throughout the COVID crisis, they’ve had to become comfortable with digital-led ways of working. In fact, now 87% of businesses are making concerted efforts to move towards longer term hybrid work models.
Since restrictions started lifting, there have been a lot of questions around what a ‘return to work’ looks like. Given all the speculation and uncertainty that continues, it’s not a particular surprise that the Centre for Cities recently announced that – since the final lift of COVID restrictions in the UK – less than 20% of city workers have returned to the office.
And while uncertainty remains around safety measures and the impact on the wider workforce, what these figures are clear about is that the future of work – in particular the creation of a long-term hybrid work model – cannot be addressed in simple soundbites. Rather, the situation facing businesses is far more complex as organisations grapple with challenges like safeguarding, compliance, and maintaining the balance of UX and security for both employees and consumers.
Why ‘hybrid’ isn’t one-size-fits-all
The first key point to remember as the workforce emerges from a COVID-dominated world is that a hybrid approach isn’t one-size-fits-all. In fact, home working has delivered truly mixed results in terms of people’s mental health and wellbeing. The Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that there was a clear divide among those who were forced to work from home from March 2020: 45% felt working from home was better for their health and wellbeing, but about one third (29%) thought it left them worse off.
Consider for a moment not only the generational spans that have been forced to work from home, but also the differences in phases of life; we saw countless working parents struggle to balance work, childcare, and education throughout the pandemic. Their hybrid work needs will be very different from someone starting their career in their early 20’s, or someone nearing or entering retirement. Businesses cannot take a generic approach to these drastically different circumstances, and given the technological acceleration we saw in 2020, companies now also need to consider that different generations will have different tolerances for technology adoption as well. These are all key considerations for companies at the outset of any digital-led or hybrid roll-out.
Customers remain king
In addition to taking a nuanced approach to re-integrating their workforces, organisations also need to keep the customer front of mind. At the start of the pandemic this forced many businesses to overhaul their operational structure, moving to a digital framework for operations in order to survive.
Customer experience has always been a critical component of business, but with the uptake in digital living accelerated by the pandemic, it’s more critical now than ever before. As customer expectations continue to evolve, ensuring a high quality of CX is maintained as people ‘return’ to work is a critical component to finding a successful, long-term hybrid model that works.
Many businesses at the offset of COVID had what I call ‘digital breakage’ – this refers to the fact that they weren’t properly set up with the required digital infrastructure to service customers in light of lockdown. An example: when call centres shut down and the humans at the helm were no longer ‘there’, customers and partners were left without anywhere to direct their queries, orders, or concerns. This not only results in lost sales, but can also sway customer loyalty, and negatively impact a brand’s reputation. Prevention is key in cases like this, and ensuring an organisation is properly setup for hybrid working will be critical. Whether it’s your employees, customers or supply-chains, business continuity is key to digital acceleration.
Thinking long term with digital acceleration
So, what’s the answer to these complex and ever-changing challenges?
Over the past year, I’ve seen business struggle more than ever before with digital connectivity; the creation of more ‘holistic’ systems to connect and integrate data for ease of use. Just as with employees at varying stages of life, each organisation has different challenges, demands, and opportunities. And just as a one-size fits all approach doesn’t work for employees, neither will it work for organisations. Instead, I favour tackling digital acceleration through a more nuanced and iterative approach which allows businesses to put the users first and unpick the complexities of everyday work – whether that’s with internal stakeholders or external customers.
Companies have been increasingly integrating new web, cloud, and mobile technology for years to remain competitive – this didn’t change with the pandemic but rather turned a wave of change into a tsunami as businesses scrambled to modernise in order to keep pace with urgent operational problems. And as companies accelerated their use of technology, there came a realisation: that the large-scale transformational tech projects they’d taken on previously may no longer be the right way forward. Instead, many businesses recognised the need for constant re-examination of progress, to allow for changes or pivots where needed to implement the right solutions for them, their employees, and their customer base.
This same approach now must be taken as workforces return and ‘hybrid work’ becomes the norm. Small steps focused on deliverables will create a much more stable pathway forward for everyone, rather than mandating hard and fast rules about how many days a month employees must be in the office or thrusting new forms of technology on people who have no appetite for such adoption.
As we continue to navigate the uncertain waters of COVID restrictions, leaders must look beyond technology and think more deeply about those using it. Given less than 1 in 10 employees want to return to the office full time, now is the time for businesses to look seriously at their set up and implement digital acceleration as a methodology for whatever the right ‘return to work’ looks like for them, their employees, and their customers.